Tag Archives: James P. Johnson

WHAT WOULD JELLY DO? “RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO”: KRIS TOKARSKI, JOSHUA GOUZY, HAL SMITH

Kris Tokarski has been one of my favorite solo and ensemble pianists for some years now.  It can’t be “many” years, because Kris is perhaps half my age, but my admiration is not limited by the length of our acquaintance.  He listens, he creates melodies, he swings, he sounds like himself, and he has a deep appreciation for the past without being chained by narrow historical definitions.

He’s recorded in a variety of settings, but here I draw your attention to two CDs of ragtime pieces done with delicacy and individuality: the first, issued in 2016 on Solo Art, paired him with drummer-scholar Hal Smith and string bassist Cassidy Holden, pleased me and others immensely: read more about it here.  KINKLETS from that disc:

The second disc by Kris and  Hal, now joined by bassist Joshua Gouzy, issued on Big Al Records, is called RAGTIME – NEW ORLEANS STYLE, VOLUME TWO, and it’s a real pleasure. Hear a sample for yourself here (scroll down the page through the evidence of how well Kris plays with others and on his own).

The premise is a collection of rags that Jelly Roll Morton planned to record — or would have known and played.  And it’s not a fanciful vision, as Hal Smith’s  solid annotations show — in 1939, Morton discussed with Roy Carew his plans to play Joplin and others in his own style, because, as he told Carew, “he didn’t know of anyone more qualified to do it than himself,” and he envisioned recording thirty or forty rags.  (Oh, had he lived for another decade!)

He didn’t live to accomplish this, but we have Tokarski, Gouzy, and Smith to make the fantasy real.

I am especially fond of projects that take a gently imaginative look at the past. Let those who feel drawn to such labors reproduce recordings: the results can be dazzling.  It takes decades of skill to play BIG FAT MA AND SKINNY PA and sound even remotely like the Hot Five.  But even more entrancing to me is the notion of “What might have happened . . . .?” going back to my early immersion in Golden Era science fiction.  An example that stays in my mind is a series of Stomp Off recordings devoted to the Johnny Dodds repertoire, with the brilliant Matthias Seuffert taking on the mantle.  But the most memorable track on those discs was Porter’s YOU DO SOMETHING TO ME, a pop tune from 1929 that Dodds might well have heard or even played — rendered convincingly and joyously in his idiom.  (It really does something to me.)

That same playful vision applies to this disc.  It merges, ever so gently, Jelly Roll Morton and an unhackneyed ragtime repertoire, mixing piano solos and piano trio.  That in itself is a delightful combination, and I replayed this disc several times in a row when I first acquired a copy.

Kris plays beautifully, with a precise yet flexible approach to the instrument and the materials.  He doesn’t undercut, satirize, or “modernize”; his approach is simultaneously loving and easy. It’s evident that he has heard and absorbed the lessons of James P. Johnson and Teddy Wilson — their particular balance of propulsion and relaxation — as well as being able to read the notes on the page. He doesn’t pretend to be Morton in the way that lesser musicians have done (with Bix, Louis, Monk, and others) — cramming in every possible Mortonism over and over.  What he does is imagine a Mortonian approach, but he allows himself freedom to move idiomatically, with grace and beauty, within it.  And he doesn’t, in the name of “authenticity,” make rags sound stiff because they were written before Joe Oliver and Little Louis took Chicago.  He’s steady, but he’s steadily gliding.  His approach to the rags is neither stuffy reverence nor near-hysterical display.

He’s in good company with Josh and Hal.  Many string bassists working in this idiom confuse percussiveness with strength, and they hit the fretboard violently: making the bass a victim of misplaced enthusiasm.  Not Joshua, who has power and melodic wisdom nicely combined: you can listen to his lines in the trio with the delight you’d take in a great horn soloist.  Every note sings, and he’s clearly there with the pulse.

As for the drummer?  To slightly alter a famous Teagarden line, “If Hal don’t get it, well, forget it right now,” which is to say that Hal’s playing on this disc is a beautifully subtle, completely “living” model of how to play ensemble drums: gracious yet encouraging, supportive.  He doesn’t just play the beat: he creates a responsive tapestry of luxuriant sounds.

The CD is beautifully recorded by Tim Stambaugh of Word of Mouth Studios, and the repertoire is a treat — rags I’d never heard (THE WATERMELON TRUST by Harry C. Thompson, and ROLLER SKATERS RAG by Samuel Gompers) as well as compositions by Joplin, Lamb, Scott, Turpin, Matthews, and May Aufderheide.  Nothing overfamiliar but all melodic and mobile.

Here’s another sample.  Kris, Joshua, and Hal are the rhythm section of Hal’s Kid Ory “On the Levee” band, and here they play May Aufderheide’s DUSTY RAG at the San Diego Jazz Fest in November 2018:

Hear what I mean?  They play with conviction but their seriousness is light-hearted.  Volume Two is a disc that won’t grow tired or stale.  Thank you, Kris, Josh, and Hal!  And Jelly, of course.

May your happiness increase!

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TELLING TIME, SEVERAL WAYS: DAWN LAMBETH and her RASCALS at the JAZZ BASH BY THE BAY (March 2, 2019)

Sixty memorable minutes. Never mind the odd composer credits.

 

It’s all relative, as Einstein tells his grandmother.  When a man sits on a hot stove, a minute seems forever; when he’s kissing his sweetheart, forever seems like a minute.  She says, “For this you won a prize?”

Dawn Lambeth

At the Jazz Bash by the Bay this last March, Dawn Lambeth and her Rascals (the name I’ve given to this delightful little group of swinging friends) demonstrated Einstein’s discovery in the nicest ways: with performances whose text is the nature of time and how it is perceived, and declarations of love in its many forms.

The Rascals are Riley Baker, drums (catch his wonderful accents behind his father’s trumpet solo on ALWAYS: “Good deal!”); Jacob Zimmerman, alto saxophone; Clint Baker, trumpet; Jerry Krahn, guitar; Ike Harris, string bass; Jeff Hamilton, piano.

First, James P. Johnson’s IF I COULD BE WITH YOU ONE HOUR TONIGHT (or, as it appeared on the 1929 Mound City Blue Blowers record label, ONE HOUR) — with the yearning verse:

From sixty minutes to eternity, Irving Berlin’s ALWAYS:

And as an instrumental meditation on the future — even when the future is seen as the fulfillment of a promise or a threat — Shelton Brooks’ SOME OF THESE DAYS, which rocks: watch out for Jeff and Riley, respectively but not respectfully:

More to come from this nice unbuttoned after-hours set.  (California festivals start early and end early, so I think this evocation of Fifty-Second Street ended at 11 PM, but it felt like the real thing, no matter what our watches said.)

May your happiness increase!

“BENNY AMÓN’S NEW ORLEANS PEARLS” WINS THE COVETED JAZZ LIVES “GFP”* AWARD: BENNY AMÓN, WENDELL BRUNIOUS, STEVE PISTORIUS, FREDDIE LONZO, ALEX BELHAJ, TOM FISCHER, TYLER THOMSON, JOE GOLDBERG, TIM LAUGHLIN

Let us start with the glorious evidence.

That’s the opening track of Benny’s new CD, and when the band shifts into tempo after Benny’s interlude I find myself in tears of joy.

Benny Amón is one of my heroes  And hero Benny can also write.

Often I’ve felt complete awe and incredulity for my experiences playing music in the city of New Orleans. I have been incredibly fortunate to gain mentors, many of whom are featured on this recording session, who have taught me to play New Orleans traditional music with the right feeling and spirit while also encouraging me to find my own voice as a musician.

This recording session is snapshot of that journey after spending most of my 20’s living in this beautiful city. The session is comprised of some of the most treasured musicians to come from this city and some of the greatest to have moved here. This exchange of generations, of cultures, of perspectives of music and life is what has helped make this recording session so successful.

My most important mentor and collaborator over the past several years, Steve Pistorius is featured prominently on this record whether it be ragtime duets, trios with horn players, or in the 7 piece ensemble. As Wendell Brunious likes to say, Steve is the #1 interpreter of the Jelly Roll Morton style of piano. Steve contributed much by writing out good melodies and chords as well.

Speaking of Wendell Brunious, we have worked together often at Preservation Hall over the past few years. Wendell is one of the best trumpet players and entertainers in the whole world and comes from one of the most important musical families of New Orleans. He is a gem that we cannot take for granted.

Freddie Lonzo is another of the New Orleans born and raised musicians who I have been working with over the past years at Preservation Hall and also at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe. He is one of the few trombone players left who understands how to play New Orleans style tailgate trombone. His positive energy and humor is infectious, as is his singing.

Tom Fischer has been in New Orleans for longer than I have been alive and his dedication to excellence on both clarinet and alto saxophone is evident on this record.

New Orleans’ own clarinetist Tim Laughlin recorded two songs on this cd that turned out beautifully. He is one of the my first and most important mentors in New Orleans.

Tyler Thomson also known as “Twerk” by many, is absolutely on fire on this record. Bringing incredible power and solidity to the bands he plays with. He would make Pops Foster, Chester Zardis, and Alcide Louis “Slow Drag” Pavageau proud.

Alex Belhaj is a dear friend of mine who moved to New Orleans a few years ago and he is a frequent collaborator with the Riverside Jazz Collective. His fine banjo and guitar playing is featured in the 7 piece band.

Joe Goldberg is another transplant to New Orleans who has earned the respect of all the top players in both the traditional and modern jazz scenes. His clarinet and soprano saxophone playing as well as his singing is featured on a couple of songs.

As a final note I would like to add a reflection on the actual site of the recording session. George Blackmon, an old friend and excellent studio engineer moved his entire set up to the Scandinavian Jazz Church (Formerly known as the Norwegian Seamen’s Church) to record the bands. The sound he got in that beautiful old church is reminiscent of old New Orleans dance halls where the New Orleans Jazz Revival bands led by such luminaries as Bunk Johnson and George Lewis used to play and record. The Jazz Church unfortunately was sold and since has been closed down after over a 100 years of service to the New Orleans community. The Church hosted jazz concerts and jazz prayer services for decades. The Church generously allowed us to record and use their facilities free of charge. This recording, and the accompanying videos produced, will stand as a last testament to this beautiful and historically important New Orleans institution.

Most importantly, the music on this record is an authentic and timeless account of the New Orleans Jazz scene as I experienced it at this time of my life; full of life, and joy. I am proud to release this music and hope that you enjoy it!

You  might think that Benny has said everything that needs to be said, but I want to add some perceptions he might be too modest to write himself.  Although he turns 30 this year, he is a mature artist with large heartfelt visions and sensitivity.  He is a spectacularly fine drummer.  He makes beautiful sounds, he plays for “the comfort of the band,” he knows dynamics and timbres, and he swings no matter what the tempo.  But he’s more than a wonderful percussionist.

Much of what is marketed as jazz these days — although it says it is inclusive — is a matter of boundaries and barriers, enacted in terms of repertoire and colleagues.  “Ourselves alone,” as the Irish used to say. Benny understands the music as spacious, its boundaries easy and flexible.  That doesn’t mean the new CD takes an iconoclastic approach for novelty’s sake, but it does mean that his vision of New Orleans jazz is easy and loose.  There are echoes on this disc of Bunk Johnson, King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Blythe, and Zutty Singleton — but also Eddie Condon, Billie Holiday, James P. Johnson.  Sidney Bechet is in town, but it is the later rhapsodic French Bechet; the Bunk echoes are of the “Last Testament” session.  I am tempted to write a track-by-track guided tour, but why spoil your surprises?

Benny’s gracious understanding also extends to the musicians he chose for this disc.  He has opened his musical house to friends who can really play and sing, people who are individualists.  And the welcome includes Elders and Youngbloods, which makes the session particularly earthy, fresh, and sweetly -surprising — it has some of the feel of a cross-generational down-home jam session where everyone is grinning their faces off at what they are hearing and what they are part of creatively.  It isn’t trad-by-the-numbers; it isn’t busker-stomp; it isn’t formulaic in any way.  And the repertoire is splendidly unhackneyed without being consciously esoteric.

Many CDs offer a huge plateful of The Same Thing, the musical equivalent of an eight-pound plateful of shrimp with lobster sauce.  But I have played this disc half a dozen times from first to last, enraptured.  There are full-ensemble pieces, one-horn, piano-drums trios, a gorgeous drum solo (BENNY FACE, as melodic as any orchestral piece), piano and drums, a few vocals (Goldberg on MY BABY; Brunious on BACKYARD; Lonzo on CALIFORNIA) — and speaking of BACKYARD . . .

How fresh and heartfelt that is!

Now I must explain the “GFP Award.”  I’d asked Benny to send me a copy of the disc when it was ready (handsome art direction there, too) and when I got it in the mail, drawn by whatever magnetism, I played it that night and wrote him immediately that it was, and I quote, a GIANT FUCKING PLEASURE (I use the vernacular when possible) and he asked me to please use that language in my blog.  I am too restrained to make it the heading . . . but the disc makes me happy.  You can buy the physical disc or a digital download here.  Don’t miss an opportunity to be uplifted.

Bless Benny and his friends.  They bring such joy.

May your happiness increase!

GUESS WHO’S IN TOWN? THE CHICAGO CELLAR BOYS at the SAN DIEGO JAZZ FEST: ANDY SCHUMM, JOHN OTTO, PAUL ASARO, JOHNNY DONATOWICZ, DAVE BOCK (Nov. 24, 2018)

The Chicago Cellar Boys are a lovely band — not only the easy swing, the ringing solos, the choice of material, the consistent lyricism, the faith that melody, played with feeling, is essential — but they have an ensemble conception, so that something pleasing is always going on.  Five pieces make a wonderful portable orchestra, where sweet and hot balance and show each other off by contrast.  People unfamiliar with this group might think it landlocked — a quintet devoting itself to Twenties and very early-Thirties music — but they would be wrong, because this is one of the most versatile groups I know: tempo, approach, arrangements, instrument-switching, and more.  They give great value!

I suggest that any listener who is deeply involved in creative improvisation, not only solos but ensemble timbres, the possibilities of a small group that transcend soloist-plus-rhythm, and the beauty of imaginative arrangements could study any one of these performances with the attention normally given to a hallowed OKeh or Oriole disc and be both enthralled and enlightened.

I’ve posted other videos of them herehere, and (with Colin Hancock sitting in) here.

The individual heroes are Andy Schumm, cornet, tenor, clarinet, arrangements; John Otto, clarinet, alto; Paul Asaro, piano, vocal; Johnny Donatowicz, banjo, guitar; Dave Bock, tuba.  Here they are at the 29th San Diego Jazz Fest, in a set performed on November 24, 2018.  They began with one of the classic late-Twenties songs about the glory to be found below the Mason-Dixon line:

and from the Clarence Williams book, by Maceo Pinkard, PILE OF LOGS AND STONE, another song glorifying the joys of rustic home life:

Thanks to Irving Berlin, Bing, and Ethel Waters:

Bless Don Redman is what I say:

LET’S DO THINGS is one of those songs I’d never known before (typically, I go away from a CCB set with new discoveries).  I was unable to find the composers, but I did stumble into a 1931 Hal Roach comedy of the same name starring ZaSu Pitts and Thelma Todd, in which the then new song THEM THERE EYES figures happily and prominently.  Here is the link to the film.  Now, the ingenious song (is it a Schumm concoction? Youth wants to know):

Another song I associate with Clarence Williams, NOBODY BUT MY BABY (IS GETTING MY LOVE):

Finally, James P. Johnson’s GUESS WHO’S IN TOWN — beloved of Ethel Waters and Max Kaminsky on Commodore:

There are many CCB videos (about thirty — yes!) still for me to share with you: I think I missed at most one and one-half of their sets at this jazz weekend.  So watch this space for more good news.

May your happiness increase!

JOPLIN, JOHNSON, JELLY, and MAX: MAX KEENLYSIDE PLAYS (Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, Sedalia, Missouri, May 31, 2018)

Max Keenlyside at the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival. Photograph by Stoptime Photo.

The young Canadian piano wizard Max Keenlyside is a fine player and composer, and we had a delightful brief meeting in person at the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, where he played an untitled and incomplete Joplin piece that I’ve titled FRAGMENTS OF JOPLIN.  Music here:

I didn’t catch it all on video, but Max told me later that Joplin’s widow, Lottie, gave Brun Campbell a photo of Joplin at the piano, where there is visible part of an otherwise unknown Joplin composition, which Max transcribed, played, and amplified on.  (Max also told me that “the full story was written about at length, I think, by Chris Ware in an issue of The Ragtime Ephemeralist, which surely must now be as rare as hens’ teeth.”)

Max’s musical range is broad, as you will see and hear, and I think it’s splendid that he might allow audience members to pick the program from his list.  One he chose was James P. Johnson’s romp, RIFFS:

His next piece, Harold Arlen’s lovely IT’S ONLY A PAPER MOON, so captivated me that I posted it right after the Festival — but since I can’t be sure that everyone’s already enjoyed it, I post it here again.  Fats peeks in now and again, but it’s all Max:

Then, some Morton episodes, always welcome.  First, THE PEARLS, which encapsulates the Master at the piano:

and from the Library of Congress recordings, SPANISH SWAT

A properly vigorous TIGER RAG, complete with elbow:

To conclude the set, a new composition by Max, which he explains, THE RED MOON:

And not incidentally, the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival will take place next year from May 29 to June 1, 2019.  I’ll tell you more about it as I know . . . because I plan to be in Sedalia, Missouri, for that weekend of joy.

May your happiness increase!

OF COURSE, THEY WEREN’T “TRAINED SINGERS”!

Anna Moffo, one of my mother’s favorite sopranos: my definition of a “trained singer.”

Everyone of us has pet theories: there’s a secret way to fold fitted sheets; day-old bagels, toasted, are better than fresh, and so on.  You, no doubt, have yours.

One of mine that is relevant to JAZZ LIVES is that often, singers who never sing because they are busy playing are the best singers of all.  I don’t mean those who are clearly identified as singers — Louis, Jelly, Teagarden, Cleo Brown — but those instrumentalists who have recorded once or twice only.  So I assembled a host of my favorites, leaving out scat choruses.  Some recordings were inaccessible: Sid Catlett’s OUT OF MY WAY, Basie’s HARVARD BLUES (where he, not Jimmy, takes the vocal) Ed Hall’s ALL I GOT WAS SYMPATHY — but this is, I hope, a pleasing, perhaps odd offering.  I present them in no particular order, except for Lester being the last, because that recording so touches me.

James P. Johnson, 1944 (with Frank Newton, Al Casey, Pops Foster, Eddie Dougherty).  The story is that Alan Lomax thought that James P. was a blues pianist when he interviewed him for the Library of Congress — and compelled him to sing this.  I don’t know: James P. is having a good time:

Coleman Hawkins, 1936, highly impassioned (when was he not?):

Vic Dickenson, crooning in 1931 with the Luis Russell Orchestra:

Vic — nearly fifty years later — singing his own composition with Ralph Sutton:

Benny Carter, aiming for Bing and having a dear good time in the process, 1933.  (This has been one of my favorite records since 1974.  Catch Benny’s trumpet solo and clarinet solo.  And Sid Catlett pleases.)  Those clever lyrics aren’t easy to sing at that tempo: ask Dan Barrett:

And another helping of Benny-does-Bing, gliding upwards into those notes.  Another favorite:

Yes, Art Tatum could sing the blues.  Uptown, 1941:

I save this for last, because it leaves me in tears.  Lester Young, 1941, and since this is the only copy of a much-played acetate, there’s a lot of surface noise.  Be patient and listen deeply:

Little is known about that recording, but I remember learning that one side of it was a dub of SHOE SHINE BOY by Jones-Smith, Inc., and this — a current pop tune with glee-club embroideries — was the other.  It’s been surmised that this was a demo disc for Lester’s new small band that he hoped to make flourish after leaving Basie.  Some of the sadness, to me, is that the attempt worked poorly, and although Lester loved to sing, there is only one other recording (the 1953 IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO) that exists.

These singers go right to my heart.

May your happiness increase!

DALTON (RIDENHOUR) SUMMONS EUBIE (BLAKE): Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival, Sedalia, Missouri, June 2, 2018

In the nineteen-seventies in New York City, I had the immense good fortune of watching and hearing Eubie Blake at close range.  He’d be introduced from the audience and eagerly take the stage to perform his compositions in a wonderful orchestral style.

Dalton Ridenhour, photograph by Aidan Grant

I had the immense good fortune of watching and hearing Dalton Ridenhour at close range during the 2018 Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival.  Here, the brilliant young Missouri native pays his own evocative idiosyncratic tribute to Eubie (with hints of James P. Johnson, Earl Hines, and others): the songs are LOVE WILL FIND A WAY, BANDANA DAYS, MEMORIES OF YOU.

“Bravo!” shouts the man at the end.  I agree.  And Eubie would too.

May your happiness increase!